Dirt-y Secrets

Winter approaches…

By Ranel Hansen
Reader Columnist

“They who sing through summer, must dance through winter.” — Italian proverb

There is no doubt about it, we are entering a new season and it’s likely to be a cold, snowy one. Time for your garden to rest and ready itself for the next growing season. We gardeners can rest a bit, too, while we plan for spring.

There was a time when I could not rest until every flower bed was trimmed and raked and looked like a neatly made quilt. I have gotten over that, and I no longer clean everything up in fall. Instead, I leave lots of annuals with seed heads for the birds and some leaves and other garden debris for sheltering insects. Of course, that leaves more work for spring, but you can congratulate yourself for caring for the little creatures in your garden. They will reward you with pest control and seed spreading — and your soil will be improved, too.

The sweet autumn clematis where Ranel Hanson allows her sparrows to overwinter. Courtesy photo.

By now, you have likely planted your bulbs and moved tender plants inside. If you haven’t, it is too late for annuals. But, you can still mulch perennials and trees, which will help them stay healthy through the winter. Remember those eggshells we talked about for slug abatement? Throw some, with a little epsom salt, under your mulch to discourage slugs from hiding in there, taking a long winter’s nap and then chowing down in the spring. The egg shells and salt are good for your plants, too.

Let’s talk about birds. The swallows and hummingbirds are long gone but the finches, chickadees, pine siskins, woodpeckers, nuthatches and others are here to spend the winter. I feed them all with sunflower seeds and they reward me with fascinating avian activity. But I have learned a little more about sparrows this year and though they are just trying to make a living like everyone else, they are invasive and a threat to all of the other cavity nesting birds. I have learned that they not only overtake nest boxes, but kill the birds inside. Not OK with me! But I did it to myself. Last year I fed the sparrows, too. And I let them take refuge from the winter cold in my sweet autumn clematis, which climbs on a porch pillar. 

Well, I can’t allow the killing to go unchecked. So, research suggests that a new kind of bird house opening will keep out sparrows. My winter project is to replace my conventional bird houses with the slotted kind, that is, you cut a slot instead of a round hole. I am still letting them shelter in the clematis, but no longer feed them nearby. As I said, they, like all of us, are just trying to get by. I will report back on my success or failure.

Meanwhile, now is the perfect time to plan next year’s garden adventures. Seed catalogs are beginning to arrive and they are so much fun to spend time with. However, when it is time to quit planning and start doing, I urge you to visit your local garden centers. They are experts in local gardening information and they are our friends and neighbors. 

We have talked about the birds. Now, the bees. Mason bees are super pollinators and I have been having such fun raising them. They only live a few weeks but in that time have laid their eggs in the houses I have for them. Once egg laying and pollination is over, I move the bees — still in their houses — into my garage where they stay while the eggs develop. 

In October, I remove the cocoons and store them in the crisper of my refrigerator, checking them over the winter to be sure they stay a bit moist. I have planted early flowering bulbs near the mason bee houses so that next year they will have plenty to eat when I put them out in April. This year my bees doubled the number of cocoons they produced! 

One last thing: Amaryllis bulbs are everywhere right now and so easy for such a huge reward. Individual bulbs or in the prefab box, they are a simple little project that you can watch grow into a gorgeous flower. The box kind comes with a pot and soil for about $7 and the bulbs only need a container and some soil or even rocks to be happy. They usually take about six weeks or so, which makes them a perfect holiday decoration.

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